In December of 2019 I visited Trinidad as a guest of Angostura. There, I met John Georges, Angostura’s recently retired Master Distiller. Georges had a front row seat for rum history over the last four decades, and I was privileged to spend several days picking his brain about all sorts of topics. As fellow engineers over many decades, we bonded over the challenges of creating and evolving large, complex systems.
On my final day in Trinidad, we sat down for an interview to get his insights and experiences on the record.
Matt Pietrek: Yes. What was your role at Angostura prior to retiring in May of 2019?
John Georges: I was called Angostura’s master distiller, but to be honest, my major role by then was mostly educational. And to some extent marketing, both locally and international. I was transformed from an engineer who ran distilleries and packaging lines to someone helping our company and products gain a wider understanding and global acceptance among the rum drinking public.
It was marketing and education. Edutainment, you might say. Rum is at a point where people need to learn about rum, understand Angostura, and how we fit into the whole thing.
Matt Pietrek: Rums from countries like Jamaica and Martinique are known for their distinctive flavor profile. What are the defining characteristics of Trinidad rum?
John Georges: I can speak about Angostura’s rum because I know what distinguishes them. Of course, Angostura is known for bitters. The way the company got into the rum business was because alcohol is a big part of bitters. The flavoring and aromatic component of bitters is a skillset and understanding. That component is what Angostura brought to rum.
At the end of the day it’s about appreciating aromas and flavors; being able to blend them effectively, sometimes in very interesting ways. That baseline is what Angostura brings to rum.
Now what is Angostura rum all about? It’s finding the essence of what happens to aged rums. The flavors and aromas that develop; finding a way to blend to enhance the components that manifest over time.
I feel that our lighter rums start off with a delicate, fresh citrus note that transitions into a softer, creamy notes – toffee, chocolate, or perhaps cocoa.
As for the heavy rums, they’re a bit harder to initially isolate. They have the same delicate citrus note and creamy chocolate, but also have more body. Some grassiness and fusel/propanol notes.
You then combine that with cask aging to extract and develop the vanilla and coconut notes. The delicate, fresh citrus notes in the initial distillate transform more to dried citrus. You also get the development of other dried fruits like raisins or dates. And then of course, there’s the cask itself, a lovely oakiness.
If you know how to blend and really enhance these components, then you have an Angostura rum. We understand the broadest capabilities of the spirit. That’s why we have a range, not just one rum. We know what the spirit of rum is really capable of achieving. So, we have a range of rums that enhances all the best qualities.
Matt Pietrek: What are some innovations you believe you brought to Angostura’s rum making?
John Georges: It’s always a team effort. I don’t know I’ve brought anything particular to that. I brought my enthusiasm, my time, my effort, my “never give up, never surrender” attitude. And I’m always there to lend a hand.
Matt Pietrek: What were the more interesting innovations or changes in distilling since when you started?
John Georges: The only thing I can think of that certainly developed during my time with Angostura is the assistance of automation. In order to maintain the excellence of Angostura rum, we don’t want to change how we make the rum. But we want to make life easier for everyone from an operational point of view. That’s what I was really trying to do. We had a lot of very talented operators and very dedicated employees. Whatever we could do to make life more manageable for them and make us more consistent was what we were after. Being consistent in delivering the product.
Matt Pietrek: Frank Ward, Mount Gay’s former Master Distiller, says that Caribbean rums don’t need decades of aging to be great. Rather, three to five years makes for a great everyday rum. Where do you think the sweet spot is for aging?
John Georges: I don’t know that there’s a sweet
spot for aging. What we at Angostura developed is an understanding that certain
rums and blends find certain notes at particular ages. The skill set is how you
bring out the best of that particular flavor.
Yes, spirits age differently in the Caribbean. It’s not a question of faster or slower. It just develops characteristics of its own, unique to the environment we age in. The rums we use are always blended. The talent we have is finding a note in a seven-year-old rum and blending around it, to enhance that note, soften it. We find that a rum might need ten or fifteen years.
It’s never going to be one single spirit for us. It will be a combination of spirits that enhance a particular note we discovered at a particular time in the realm of aging.
Matt Pietrek: Molasses sourcing and quality has become a big issue for Caribbean distillers lately. What are your thoughts on this?
John Georges: It’s definitely a challenge. From a purely operational point of view there are challenges using molasses from different parts of the world. Different sugar factories use slightly different processes. Over the time I’ve been in the industry there has been a step change in their efficiency. When I was in the business early on, 56 to 58 percent fermentable sugars was normal. Now you’re all the way down to 42 percent if you’re lucky. That presents operational challenges.
I honestly can’t say I’ve noticed a big difference in spirit quality. But fermenting and distilling that stuff presents a challenge.
Matt Pietrek: What are some things rum enthusiasts and producers can do to elevate the perception of rum?
John Georges: We could go on forever on that one. At the end of the day, rum as a spirit has been pigeonholed and categorized as occupying a certain space. In the minds of many it’s below many other so-called sophisticated spirits. And I think that’s wrong.
We need people who can advocate for rum and speak for rum as eloquently as people speak for other spirits. There’s nothing inherently lower quality about rum. It’s just how people speak about rum.
First, we all need to change our thinking about the spirit. Then, once we begin to respect the spirit more, we will look at it and treat it differently. Understand much more about it. And understand that from a purely marketing point of view, you can’t denigrate your own product. Also, from a purely marketing point of view, no matter what you think of the spirit, you cannot sell a rubbish. You still need to work on the quality aspect of the spirit.
What do you mean by quality aspect of the spirit? I still believe rum makers can find ways of bringing refinement to whatever they’re doing. There are always ways of bringing more dimension to their product. You need to learn how that’s done without changing the essence of what you’re doing. There’s nothing magical about it. It’s learning about your spirit. Learning about the small things you can do to improve the refinement of the product — presenting and speaking about it in a particular manner.
I don’t like analogies, but I think rum is like any other art form. If someone takes the time to explain the components of opera or a great painting to you, you look at it with different eyes and appreciate it a whole lot more. That moment someone tells you how beautiful an opera is — it was a cacophony before you understood. But once you understand: boom! It’s beautiful, beautiful music.
Or, look at a wonderful painting. Maybe you just never noticed the light before. You never saw those colors before. It takes a little time and a little bit of education.
I think many other spirits have been better at that than we have. You still have to make a quality product. You still have to work on getting rid of a few edges. Rounding them off, polishing them a little bit. And understanding them enough to explain to others.
Matt Pietrek: What are your thoughts on rum geographical indications and what they should accomplish?
John Georges: My understanding of a GI really comes from just that: Geography. Where was this spirit made?
Stick to the basics. It should be made from sugar cane. Whether it’s required to be local sugar cane is up to the individual country. But it certainly should be fermented and distilled in your country. And it shouldn’t be over-distilled to where it’s not recognizable as rum.
If you allow additives, tell the consumer what you’ve added. But whether you allow additives is your country’s decision. It should not be dictated from elsewhere, like a trading bloc. If Trinidad were to have a GI, it should reflect Trinidad’s wishes and traditions, not somebody else’s.
So, if a GI gives you a certain measure of identification; go ahead and do it. But the definition needs to very carefully crafted so that it really enhances the perception of the spirit.
To me, a more important part of refining the rum business is accepting certain basic standards associated with making rum.
The definition of rum must create confidence in the consumer’s mind that they are getting something of true origin and true quality. The fundamentals of what your rum is made of. Your approach to age claims. Your approach to additives.
All of these things need to be made clear to the consumer. They can then decide whether this represents the kind of quality and heritage making them want to buy and drink your spirit.
Matt Pietrek: Tell us about the 10 Cane Project and how you were involved.
John Georges: It was entirely operational. At the end of the day, the 10 Cane situation was that LVMH [Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton] created this spirit and they needed somewhere to make it in the Caribbean. Surely for logistical reasons, I suspect. They made an agreement with Angostura to do that.
Spirits are a touchy business in any country in the world. You can do a lot of things but getting into somebody’s alcohol business is always going to be touchy. Angostura, being well established in Trinidad, was able to more easily handle the logistics of establishing the still and getting things going.
10 cane was a rum based on a spirit developed in France. Cane juice crushed every day; fresh from cane that was cut on a daily basis and used within 24 hours. Fermented using their own specialty yeast and distilled in an alembic from France. It was aged for a certain amount of time before being blended and bottled right here in Trinidad.
Once they had established the operation, bought all the equipment, and set it up, there was a gentleman hired by LVMH to oversee the actual production. My role was primarily operational, assisting him in interacting with the local scenarios to make sure everything happened; that the cane arrived, that the plant kept running. It was purely interacting with the various local trades and authorities to ensure the spirit was made.
Everything from the design of the spirit, the packaging and so on, all that was LVMH. We just facilitated the actual bringing it all together. Providing space for the aging and that sort of thing.
Fascinating project. It’s always nice to have a lot of money to throw at a project like this. Everyone played a part; the guys who facilitated the purchasing equipment from various parts of the world; bringing things here, seeing it through the customs and excise process; hiring the people to help run the place. Other than the guy in charge, we still needed locals to run the place. That was the role I primarily played. We had nothing to do with the blending formulas or anything like that.
Then there was the packaging and logistics of getting all the stuff out. I played a role in that as well. At that point I ran the packaging department. It was about getting the glass in; getting the spirits in; getting all the stoppers and labels and that sort of thing. Coordinating with their logistics, who at that time were in Singapore or something like that.
When you’re in operations, every day is pretty much like the next as long as things are going well. So, it’s always fun to get into a nice startup like this.
Matt Pietrek: When I visited St. Lucia Distillers, I saw the Vendome batch still they purchased from Angostura around 2003 or so. Can you tell us a bit about that still and the story behind it? Was it ever used by Angostura to make their rum?
John Georges: This was Angostura’s second attempt at perhaps developing a spirit with slightly different characteristics than generated from their continuous stills. A different quality of spirit that might be used for aging and blending.
We tried it a couple of times and did a few things with it. In the end it didn’t really meet our requirements. It was an experiment and we thought: Well no, this is not the way we want to go. At that time we had some association with St. Lucia [St. Lucia Distillers, who shared a common parent company at the time with Angostura.] They thought, well… it might work for them, and off it went.
I honestly didn’t stay in touch with them to find out what it does for them. But they like it and I’m happy it found a home.
Matt Pietrek: We were talking earlier today about how Angostura had some Caroni stock. How did this come about?
John Georges: Oh, that’s a long story. At the
end of the day, Caroni Limited, after a lot of debate, eventually took the
decision that they would get out of the rum business altogether. They had some
spirit stock which Angostura were given an opportunity to sample and see if
there was anything that they wanted. As it turned out, there were some [Caroni]
spirits there that were wonderful. Trinidad spirits that we thought would find
a home in one of our blends someday.
Caroni made good rum. They made some interesting spirits and we bought what we thought we could make use of. But that Caroni spirit ended up all over the world. There’s stuff in the States. Stuff in England. Stuff in Italy. We think we got the best, but it’s a matter of opinion.
Matt Pietrek: Is there still some of that stock on hand?
John Georges: I haven’t checked recently but I would think there is. When it comes to blending, I don’t get heavily involved because in Angostura there are some secrets that must be maintained.
Matt Pietrek: Continuing on that thought, how involved are you in the blending process? Both the main Angostura product line, as well as special editions, like Angostura Legacy?
John Georges: Apparently my role is towards the end. As a distiller, they will not tell me their secrets. But one or two of them value my opinion in terms of the finished product. I can advise, I can help, apparently, with suggesting changes which might find favor, or add something interesting. Or perhaps point out where a spirit is a little flat. In the last four or five editions I believe I’ve made a favorable input resulting in changes that found their way into the finished product.
But no, I don’t personally do anything. I don’t personally get involved. It’s just my educated palate. Let’s leave it at that.
Blending is a long suit for Angostura. I think we do quite well. We benefited first from our own experience. And then when Angostura got together with Fernandes [another Trinidad rum maker which Angostura acquired in the mid-1970s], we gained more experience.
And now we have newer, younger blenders. It’s been quite good in terms of sharing blending knowledge over the years. Our in-house blenders are very talented people.
Blending is a little bit like cooking. I always say you can have all the beautiful ingredients in the world; all the wonderful spirits; but if you don’t know how to put them together, if you are not up to speed with both recipe and procedure, things come out differently.
I’ll tell you a story. We had a girl that worked with us at my home when both my wife and I were working. She helped keep the place tidy. Every once in a while, she’d cook a meal for us. My wife and I were always amazed. We both agreed this lady could out-cook the hell out of my wife. It was the same kitchen that she used; the same ingredients were available to both of them. It’s not a question of ingredients, it’s a question of experience and knowledge.
Not only did she cook, she somehow multitasked so that the house was clean, and the food was cooked. We never knew how she did that. We came home and everything was on the pot, warm and nice and the house was clean. How did she do that? Miracles. Inherent knowledge and skills.
Matt Pietrek: What was your approach to distilling, in terms of making a variety of distillates available to the blenders to work with?
John Georges: We have established standards for our light rums and our so-called heavy rums. We work within those parameters. For fermentation we use our own yeast, and we have operating conditions that must be maintained, as we believe they yield a consistent wash for distilling. Then we have set operating conditions on the still, which if properly maintained produce a consistent product.
That’s it. You have to be monitoring everything all the time.
Those two base spirits, combined with the side streams that are part of the production of rum, form the basis for what happens next. When the blenders take over, they use them either as-is, or in combination for aging. Let’s just say very little goes to waste. But we start with those two basic spirits of light rum and what we consider to be a heavy rum.
Matt Pietrek: What are some of Angostura’s innovations in waste management?
John Georges: Waste management is obviously very top of mind for Angostura. For many years we worked with local authorities using a very satisfactory solution depending primarily on digestion in ponds.
But we have stepped up, putting in our own digester which will further improve our distillery as far as effluent is concerned. We’re in the process of optimizing that process now. It’s an ongoing thing. We set it up three or four years ago and now we’re in the process of continuing optimization.
Matt Pietrek: Would it be fair to say that Angostura’s rum making do is similar to other Spanish heritage countries like Cuba and Puerto Rico?
John Georges: Yes. More Puerto Rico than Cuba. But in a similar way to the Cubans. I think they pioneered this sort of heavy rum blended with light rum process. Angostura came to make their own rum relatively late.
The Siegert family were never sugar estate owners and came to rum from a blending perspective. They bought spirits to make bitters and said “Well, logically if we buy more spirits, we’ll get a cheaper price. We’ll take the surplus beyond what we need for bitters, and age and blend it to produce something with another revenue stream.”
For many years they experimented with different sources of rum and aging and blending. They perfected that knowledge of how rum behaves in the cask and how different styles of rum give you different flavors. When they decided to truly commit to the rum business, they looked around and decided what they wanted their rum to be.
Pot stills and Coffey stills were available then. But we thought no — we would go with a four or five column arrangement, making a light rum, a heavy rum, and coming up with a blend. We’ve stuck with that formula pretty much since 1947, even though we’d been involved in rum since the late 1800s. We finally acquired our own still around 1947.
Matt Pietrek: Touching on that, enthusiasts and perhaps certain producers have taken shots at multi-column stills as not making a worthy [flavorful] spirit. What’s your take?
John Georges: Everybody has an opinion, and in my opinion it’s a fine spirit. Everything evolves. But at the base, it’s rum. It’s sugar from sugarcane, fermented and distilled. Whether you use a pot still, a Coffey still, or use five columns, it’s still cane sugar, fermented, and distilled. It’s rum.
Anything that suggests one is better than the other, in my opinion, is quite arbitrary. Maybe I don’t see any validity in that argument, particularly bearing in mind that we just like to blend it in a manner that’s suitable.
It’s not as though it’s not rum, or doesn’t have all the components of every other rum. They may just be in lower quantities. I don’t know there’s a congener level which makes it rum, or not rum.
Let’s not get complicated with that. Recognize them all as rum and let the consumer decide what they want to drink.
Matt Pietrek: I remember reading about the Angostura Legacy release in 2013. It cost $25,0000. You were heavily quoted regarding it. What was your experience like in developing it?
John Georges: Yes, that rum was fascinating. It took four or five years to get it right. To get it to just the right point we wanted. We all took a stab at it somewhere along the line.
It’s truly fascinating, the skills of the blenders that we have. In this particular case I worked with Sarah, and she had this beautiful way of translating what I said into action. That’s a skill I admire hugely. If I suggested that perhaps we want to go this way, she knew how to take my words and make it happen. She is exceptional, as are the others who are really good at understanding what’s needed.
Again, we go to the cooking analogy. You know what to add to enhance flavor — when to combine, when to clash.
Matt Pietrek: If you could only take one bottle of rum from another country to your desert island, what would it be?
John Georges: A few years ago, Appleton had a blend called Master Blender’s Legacy. It was the one rum from Jamaica that I definitely have to give full praise to. I got a couple of bottles. Little did I know that it’s not available anymore. It’s really very, very good. Definitely a cut above the rest.
Angostura has some really good rums. I still have not been pried away from the Angostura 1824. It’s my staple. But that master blender’s legacy was a good rum. I asked them for more and they told me that it’s just not available.
Matt Pietrek: I think you also mentioned the Angostura Number One?
John Georges: Yes, the Number One second edition. Aged in American oak and French oak. That was another, great rum that had those lovely parts The French oak manifested itself there. A little more flowery than what’s available from American oak. It’s a wood note, but slightly more flowery. A wood note in American oak is definitely woody or a little ashy. In French Oak it’s more floral.
Matt Pietrek: Are there any master distillers that you particularly admire what they’re doing, or their approach?
John Georges: I sometimes suffer from the old imposter syndrome because at the end of the day… some of the guys I worked with at my distillery, the guys who actually did the legwork, they were some interesting characters who really knew their way around their equipment. Unless you’re actually operating and doing this thing over an extended period you really don’t fully appreciate all that needs to be done.
The guys that I worked with over a period of time, these people remember things from four or five years ago. This is their equipment, and if something goes wrong that hasn’t happened in three or four years, they remember, and can deal with it. If there’s an odd flavor, or any problem, they are drawing on many years of experience to solve problems. And when they have a new issue, they draw on many years of experience to do detective work and learn new things about their plant. Those are the guys I admire.
Some of my operators at the distillery saved my soul, saved my ass many times. [Laughs] They probably couldn’t tell me how. I’d like to think it went both ways. I’d like to think I was able to teach them things as well, which they incorporated in their skillset.
I also want to mention two gentlemen who enormously influenced my work at Angostura: A.C. Gomez and Tommy Gatcliffe. A.C. designed the original still used when the company [Trinidad Distillers Ltd., an Angostura subsidiary] started distilling in the late 1940s. He went on to become a Managing Director. And then there’s Tommy Gatcliffe. His notes on the stills and how they operated were brilliant. They were essential to me when I started with the firm in the early 1980s. Tommy became Angostura’s chairman, and I met him a few times.
Maybe I’ll get a chance to spend some quality time with some other distillers.
You can’t talk about it. You have to live it.